Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
There came the sound of footsteps – Callisthenes had joined them to visit the famous sanctuary.
‘And what do you make of it all, Callisthenes?’ asked Ptolemy as he walked towards him and put his arm around him. ‘Do you believe that this really is Achilles’s armour? And this, hanging here from that column, is this really Paris’s lyre?’ He brushed the strings and the instrument produced a dull, out-of-tune chord.
Alexander no longer seemed to be listening. He was staring at the young Locrian woman as she now filled the lamps with perfumed oil, studying the perfection of her figure through the transparency of her peplum as a ray of light came through it. He was captivated by the mystery that glowed in her shy, meek eyes.
‘You well know that none of this really matters,’ replied Callisthenes. ‘At Sparta, in the Dioscurian temple, they have an egg on display from which Castor and Pollux, the two twins, brothers of Helen, were supposedly born, but I think it’s the egg of an ostrich, a Libyan bird as tall as a horse. Our sanctuaries are full of relics like this. The thing that matters is what the people want to believe and the people need to believe and need to be able to dream.’ As he spoke he turned towards Alexander.
The King moved towards the great panoply of bronze, adorned with tin and silver, and he gently stroked the shield carved in relief, with the scenes described by Homer and the helmet embellished with a triple crest.
‘And how did this armour come to be here?’ he asked the priest.
‘Ulysses brought it here, filled with remorse for having usurped Ajax’s right to it, and he placed it before the tomb as a votive gift, imploring Ajax to help him return to Ithaca. It was then gathered up and housed in this sanctuary.’
Alexander moved closer to the priest. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Yes. You are Alexander, King of Macedon.’
‘That’s right. And I am directly descended, on my mother’s side, from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, founder of the dynasty of Epirus, and thus I am heir to Achilles. Therefore this armour is mine, and I want it.’
The priest’s face drained of all colour. ‘But Sire . . .’
‘What!’ exclaimed Ptolemy with a grin on his face. ‘We’re supposed to believe that this is Paris’s lyre, that these are Achilles’ weapons, made by the god Hephaestus in person, and you don’t believe that our King is a direct descendant of Achilles, son of Peleus?’
‘Oh no . . .’ stammered the priest. ‘It’s simply that these are sacred objects which cannot be . . .’
‘Nonsense,’ said Perdiccas. ‘You can have other identical weapons made. No one will ever know the difference. Our King needs them, you see, and since they belonged to his ancestor . . .’ and he opened his arms as if to say, ‘an inheritance is an inheritance.’
‘Have it brought to our camp. It will be displayed before our army like a standard before every battle,’ came Alexander’s orders. ‘And now we must return – our visit is over.’
They left in dribs and drabs, hanging on to look around at the incredible jumble of objects hanging from the columns and the walls.
The priest noticed Alexander staring at the girl as she left the temple through a side door.
‘She goes swimming every evening in the sea near the mouth of the Scamander,’ he whispered in his ear.
The King said nothing as he left. Not long afterwards the priest saw him mount his horse and set off towards the camp on the seashore, which was teeming with activity like some giant anthill.
Alexander saw her arrive, walking briskly and confidently in the darkness, coming along the left-hand bank of the river. She stopped just where the waters of the Scamander mixed with the sea waves. It was a peaceful, calm night and the moon was just beginning to rise from the sea, drawing a long silver wake from the horizon to the shore. The girl took off her clothes, undid her hair in the moonlight and entered the water. Her body, caressed by the waves, glowed like polished marble.
‘You are beautiful. You look like a goddess, Daunia,’ Alexander said quietly as he came out of the shadow.
The girl went in deeper, up to her chin, and moved away. ‘Do not harm me. I have been consecrated.’
‘To do penance for an ancient act of rape?’
‘To do penance for all rapes. Women are always obliged to endure.’
The King took off his clothes and entered the water, as she crossed her arms over her chest to hide her breasts.
‘They say that the Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by the divine Praxiteles, covers her breasts just as you are doing now. Even Aphrodite is demure . . . do not be afraid. Come.’
The girl moved towards him slowly, walking over the sandy bed and, as she came nearer, her divine body emerged dripping from the water and the surface of the sea receded until it embraced her hips and her belly.
‘Lead me through the water to the tumulus of Achilles. I don’t want anyone to see us.’
‘Follow me then,’ said Daunia. ‘And let’s hope you are a good swimmer.’ She turned on to her side and slipped through the waves like a Nereid, a nymph of the salty abyss.
The coast formed a wide bay at that point, the shoreline already illuminated by the campfires, and it ended in a promontory with an earthen tumulus at its tip.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ replied Alexander as he swam alongside her.
The girl struck out offshore, cutting straight across the bay, aiming directly for the headland. She swam elegantly, graceful and flowing in her movements, almost noiseless, slipping through the water like some marine creature.
‘You are very good,’ said Alexander, himself breathless.
‘I was born on the sea. Do you still want to go as far as the Sigeus headland?’
Alexander did not reply and continued swimming until he saw the foam of the breaking water in the moonlight on the beach, the waves stretching up rhythmically to the base of the great tumulus.
They came out of the water holding each other by the hand, and the King led them closer to the dark mass of Achilles’s tomb. Alexander felt, or he believed he felt, the spirit of the hero penetrate him and he thought he saw Brisïs with her rosy cheeks when he turned towards his companion, who was now standing before him in the silver moonlight, searching for Alexander’s gaze in the darkness that enveloped him.
‘Only the gods are allowed moments like this,’ Alexander whispered to her and turned towards the warm breeze that came from the sea. ‘Here Achilles sat and cried for the death of Patroclus. Here his mother, the ocean nymph, deposited his arms, weapons forged by a god.’
‘So you do believe in it after all?’ the girl asked him.
‘So why in the temple . . .’
‘It’s different here. It’s night and those distant voices, long silenced, can still be heard. And you are resplendent here before me – unveiled.’
‘Are you really a king?’
‘Look at me. Who do you see here before you?’
‘You are the young man who sometimes appears in my dreams while I sleep with my friends in the goddess’s sanctuary. The young man I would have wanted to love.’
He moved closer and held her head on his chest.
‘I will leave tomorrow, and in a few days’ time I will have to face a difficult battle – perhaps I will be victorious, perhaps I will die.’
‘In that case, take me if you want me, take me here on this warm sand and let me hold you in my arms, even if we will regret it later.’ She kissed him long and passionately, stroking his hair. ‘Moments like this are reserved for the gods alone. But we are gods, for as long as this night lasts.’
LEXANDER UNDRESSED BEFORE
his assembled army and, as required by the ancient rite, ran three times around the tomb of Achilles. Hephaestion did the same thing around the tomb of Patroclus. Each time they completed a lap, more than forty thousand voices cried in unison:
‘He certainly knows how to act the part!’ exclaimed Callisthenes from their corner of the camp.
‘You think so?’ replied Ptolemy.
‘There’s no doubt about it. He doesn’t believe in the myths and the legends any more than you or I do, but he behaves as though they were more real than reality itself. This is how he demonstrates to his men that dreams are possible.’
‘It’s as though you knew him like the back of your hand,’ said Ptolemy, his voice full of sarcasm.
‘I have learned to observe men, and not just nature.’
‘In that case you should be aware that no one can ever claim to know Alexander. His actions are there for everyone to see, but they are not predictable, and neither is it always possible to understand their deeper significance. He believes and he doesn’t believe at the same time, he is capable of great expressions of love and of uncontrollable rage . . . he is . . .’
‘Different. I first met him when I was six years old, and I still cannot say I truly know him.’
‘Perhaps you’re right. But now he has all his men believing he is Achilles reincarnate and that Hephaestion is Patroclus.’
‘At this moment the two of them believe it as well. After all, wasn’t it you who established, on the basis of your astronomy, that our invasion took place in the same month in which the Trojan War began, exactly one thousand years ago?’
Alexander in the meantime had dressed again and put his armour on. Hephaestion too got ready and they both mounted their horses. General Parmenion ordered the trumpets to be sounded and Ptolemy, in his turn, leaped on to his charger. ‘I must join my division. Alexander is about to inspect the army.’
The trumpets resounded again, repeatedly, and the army lined up along the shore, each division with its own standards and insignias.
There were thirty-two thousand foot-soldiers in total. On the left-hand side were three thousand ‘shieldsmen’ and then seven thousand Greek allies, one tenth of the number which a hundred and fifty years previously had taken on the Persians at Plataea. They wore the traditional heavy armour of Greek frontline troops and sported massive Corinthian helmets protecting their faces completely, right down to the base of their necks, leaving only their eyes and their mouths exposed.
In the centre were the six battalions of the phalanx, the
– some ten thousand men. On the right-hand side, instead, were the auxiliary barbarians from the north – five thousand Thracians and Triballians who had taken Alexander up on his offer, attracted by the money and the prospect of looting. They were brave men, capable of the most reckless of feats, indefatigable, and they were able to bear the cold, the hunger and the ordeals of battle. They were a frightful sight with their red, bristly hair, their long beards, their fair, freckled complexions and their bodies covered with tattoos.
Among these barbarians, the wildest and most primitive were the Agrianians of the Illyrian mountains: they had no Greek and an interpreter had to be called to communicate with them, but their unique talent was their ability to climb any rocky face using ropes made of plant fibres, hooks and grappling-irons. All the Thracians and the other auxiliaries from the north were equipped with helmets and leather corsets, small crescent-moon shields and long sabres that were used both with the point and the blade. In battle they were as ferocious as wild beasts and in hand-to-hand combat they had been known to bite lumps of flesh out of their opponents’ bodies. Behind them, almost as a sort of barrier, came seven thousand Greek mercenaries – light and heavy infantry.
Out on the wings, detached from the infantry, was the heavy cavalry, the
– two thousand eight hundred of them in total. To these were added the same number of Thessalian horsemen and some four thousand auxiliaries, plus the five hundred special horsemen of the Vanguard, Alexander’s squadron.
The King, astride Bucephalas, inspected his troops division by division, accompanied by his entourage. Eumenes was present as well, armed to the teeth and proudly sporting a breastplate of crushed flax, decorated and strengthened with polished plates of bronze, shining like mirrors. The secretary general’s thoughts, however, as he passed before the multitude, were not at all grandiose – he was making mental notes of how much grain, how many vegetables, how much salted fish, smoked meat and wine would be required to keep all these men going, and how much money he would have to spend every day to purchase all those provisions. During the inspection he worked out how long the reserves they had brought with them would last.
Despite these worries, however, he still had some hope of being able to offer the King some suggestions for a successful expedition.
When they reached the head of the line-up, Alexander nodded to Parmenion and the general gave orders for them to set off. The long column began to move – the cavalry on the flanks two by two, the infantry in the middle. The direction was northerly, along the seashore.
The army slithered forward like a long snake and Alexander’s helmet, crowned by two long white plumes, could be made out from far away.
Just at that moment Daunia looked out from the main entrance of the temple of Athena and stood there at the top of the steps. The young man who had loved her on the shore that fragrant spring night now looked as small as a child, his overly polished, overly resplendent armour glinting in the sun. He was no longer that young lover; that young lover no longer existed.